Miliband should sack Ed Balls

Labour cannot hope to rebuild its economic credibility while Balls remains shadow chancellor.

In his upcoming reshuffle, Ed Miliband should replace Ed Balls as shadow chancellor.

The Labour party is currently becalmed, and with it Miliband's leadership. In the 12 months since he replaced Gordon Brown, Labour's poll rating has risen one per cent according to the most recent Populous poll, two points according to MORI. Despite riots, war and economic stagnation Labour's leader cannot break beyond the margin of error.

Those wondering whether phone hacking would be a game changer have their answer. It has changed nothing. Despite his deft response to the crisis almost half of Labour supporters cannot picture Ed Miliband as prime minister, and his general approval ratings are plumbing new depths.

But it's not only Ed Miliband the polling furies have chosen to mock. Unemployment is rising. Business confidence declining. Growth estimates are being frantically revised down. Yet unbelievably, the Conservative party has now opened up a ten point lead over Labour on the issue of who has the best economic policies for the country. Even more staggering, their lead has actually increased since March. The worst things get for the economy, the better things seem to get for George Osborne and his party.

There is a simple reason for this paradox. Labour's own economic policy has no clothes. The deficit is the defining issue in British politics. And Tory attempts to brand Labour as deficit deniers have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In fact, they have not so much branded shadow ministers as embalmed them, placed them in a glass case and erected a sign "Deficit Denier, official exhibit, 2010 - present".

No one within the Labour party is prepared to even glance at, never mind acknowledge, this elephant in the shadow cabinet room. Nor are they prepared to acknowledge the even larger elephant balancing upon its shoulders. The person who must take responsibility for this parlous state of affairs is Ed Balls.

Labour's shadow chancellor is one of the few political heavyweights on the front bench. But in this specific brief he is an albatross around his party's neck. All the opinion polls indicate the public blames the economic policies of the previous Labour government for the cuts to thier services, along with the hardship they are experiencing, more than the coalition. And Ed Balls is the individual in the shadow cabinet more closely associated with those policies than any other.

Ed Miliband is acutely aware of the toxic legacy of the Brown premiership. Hence his reluctance to even raise the issue of the economy in the wake of the publication of the Darling memoirs. But if he is wary of discussing economics when David Cameron has a copy of Back from the Brinksitting on his lap, how can he hope to make a case whilst he has Ed Balls sitting on his own?

Nor is this just an issue of legacy. Ed Balls was instrumental in rebuilding Labour's economic credibility from the rubble of the 1992 election defeat. He did it by adhering to a simple golden rule. If Labour couldn't ditch their tax and spend image they were unelectable. Prudence became the watch word. Shadow ministers were banned form making any commitments on spending. Gordon Brown, at Ball's urging, pledged to stick to Tory spending limits, and did so even after Labour's landslide 1997 election victory.

Yet as shadow chancellor Ed Balls seems intent on unlearning every rule he once imposed with iron, and occasionally brutal, discipline on others. Labour's policy has not just regressed to tax and spend. It's now cut tax and spend. New expenditure commitments are tossed around like confetti. Tax cuts bounced out with no internal consultation. Prudence has been ditched, replaced by that leather clad vixen, Ms Pump Primer.

What is Ed Balls thinking? It's not just that he's trying to get the voters to embrace an economic agenda they rejected decisively at the 2010 election. They're being asked to endorse economic policies they rejected at the 1979 election. The perception of fiscal profligacy isn't a dead end for the Labour party. It's political hemlock. We know this because Ed Balls told us it was. And he was right.

Labour's economic policy is no longer grounded in political reality, but in a combination of misguided loyalty, stubbornness and Keynesian economic orthodoxy. Ed Balls seems to believe distancing himself from the policies of Gordon Brown would represent a form of betrayal. It would not. It's just the price of doing business for a new party of opposition. He also seems to equate dogma with strength. Yet by sticking unflinchingly to the failed strategy of a failed manifesto he is reinforcing every negative stereotype his enemies have ever sought to construct around him. "The reckless thing to do is plough on regardless", he told Tribune this week. Too right.

Ed Balls is shadow chancellor. His is not chancellor. His prescriptions for the nation's ills may be economically sound. But they are politically unsustainable. Saying 'I was right, you were wrong' to your political opponents, is one thing. Saying it to the voters is a different matter entirely.

He seems unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge this. A destructive combination of loyalty, stubbornness and pride have locked him into a strategy from which he cannot escape. Which is why, at the next shadow cabinet reshuffle, Ed Miliband needs to set Ed Balls and his party free.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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